The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power

Deirdre Mask, 2020. Profile Books.

Following South African transition to democracy in 1994, many of its streets, roads, suburbs, cities and provinces have been renamed. But the renaming process was surprisingly cautious and not without a controversy. The slow pace at which it happened was for many an obvious reminder “that 1994 was a negotiated settlement and not a revolutionary takeover” and that (re)naming of streets still “reflects unequal power relations in the country”.

Under apartheid, many of the street names were in the Afrikaans language, or honored prominent Afrikaners. At the same time, the government hadn’t even bothered to give many Black areas street names at all. Even today, almost three decades after the end of apartheid, thousands of streets are unnamed in the country. Post-apartheid South Africa smoothly substituted apartheid-affiliated names with more “neutral” ones. But renaming the sites after political (struggle) heroes has proven to be a contested issue that continues to provoke polarization in South African society; largely along the same old divisions of race and class. It turns out that street names raise fundamental questions about South African identity. Who deserves to be on South Africa’s street signs? Can Afrikaner names simply be considered as the names of South Africans?

These are just some of the questions that Deirdre Mask tries to shed light on in her marvelous and absorbing book “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power”, published in 2020.

According to Deirdre Mask, most households in the world don’t have street addresses and almost 70% of the world is insufficiently mapped. Lack of street names represents a problem that is not unique to the developing world. But why do we care about street names? Aren’t they just a “an often overlooked, seemingly banal bit of everyday life”?

In her quest for answers, Mask takes us through time and space, engaging with prominent historians, scientists, public servants but also ordinary people, and showing how street names (or lack of them) have serious implications for development, how they are often political and how much they reveal about the class structure as well as racial relations in the countries concerned.

She begins her story in ancient Rome where she tries to understand how the ancient Romans navigated, long before streets were named and numbered. According to Mask, Rome was full of life and its residents simply used multisensory maps, that is, they used all their senses. To find your way, you could follow your nose. Or you could navigate by ear, Rome was a symphony of sound, Mask writes. Street naming and numbering was invented much later.

The naming and numbering of streets was an Enlightenment project that coincided with a revolution in how we lead our lives and how we shape our societies. It was not invented to help people navigate, but to make taxation, policing and imprisonment easier. The house numbers were designed to help governments find their citizens. Especially in times of need.

Addresses allowed cities to “begin at the beginning”. With a proper system of naming and numbering of streets, you can find residents, collect information, maintain infrastructure and create maps. Naming also helps democracy, allowing for easier voter registration and mapping of voting districts.

Mask’s main argument is that street names are essentially about identity, wealth and race. They are always about power, power to name, the power to shape history, the power to decide who counts who doesn’t and why.

Starting in the slums of Kolkata, Mask demonstrates how the lack of addresses there deprived those living in slums a chance to get out of them. The lack of address makes it almost impossible to open a bank account, borrow or save money or receive a state pension. 

Only a few months after the deadly earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, killing in thirty-five seconds more people than the bombs of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden combined, this small Caribbean island was struck by cholera. The Cholera spread quickly and what became an instant obstacle in stopping the epidemic and identifying the source of it was a lack of good maps of the island. Doctors and other health workers struggled to locate their patients and to establish the pattern of how disease was spreading. Location and disease are inseparable for epidemiologists.

Street names are often political. Modern street names do more than describe, Mask writes, they commemorate. Renaming of streets after revolutions, for example, is not just a symbolic gesture. Usually the renaming process is strongly guided by values of the Revolution. It all started with the French revolution. Around the world revolutionary governments kick off their regimes by changing the street names. Example of Russia, where more than four thousand main streets were named after Lenin in the aftermath of the Revolution, and Mexico City where more than five hundred streets were named after Emiliano Zapata, the leader of its peasant revolution, are just few examples. In Spain, the law required changing all streets named after Fascists, and in Sudan, prodemocracy protestors have changed the names of streets to those killed in the uprising against Omar al-Bashir.

Street names also reveal a lot about the nation’s reckoning with its (inconvenient) past, what Mask is showing in the chapter about Berlin and street naming in Germany during the twentieth century, through the story of the Jew Streets.

In countries with long histories of racism and complicated race relations, street names are a useful monitoring tools of the progress that the country is making in overcoming its own dark ages. The fact that Americans can’t stop arguing about Confederate street names and that naming a predominantly white area after Martin Luther King can ignite a race war, reveals a lot about the complexity of race relations in the United States more than half of a century after his MLK’s death.

The Address Book is a fascinating study with profound insights into how addresses affect life of people around the world, but also how something simple and technical as street names can reveal a lot about the complex and quite sensitive issues that society is facing.

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